By Michelle Moran
Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire. From her popular model of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie’s museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics. Her customers hail from every walk of life, yet her greatest dream is to attract the attention of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI; their stamp of approval on her work could catapult her and her museum to the fame and riches she desires. After months of anticipation, Marie learns that the royal family is willing to come and see their likenesses. When they finally arrive, the king’s sister is so impressed that she requests Marie’s presence at Versailles as a royal tutor in wax sculpting. It is a request Marie knows she cannot refuse—even if it means time away from her beloved Salon and her increasingly dear friend, Henri Charles.
As Marie gets to know her pupil, Princesse Élisabeth, she also becomes acquainted with the king and queen, who introduce her to the glamorous life at court. From lavish parties with more delicacies than she’s ever seen to rooms filled with candles lit only once before being discarded, Marie steps into a world entirely different from her home on the Boulevard du Temple, where people are selling their teeth in order to put food on the table.
Meanwhile, many resent the vast separation between rich and poor. In salons and cafés across Paris, people like Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre are lashing out against the monarchy. Soon, there’s whispered talk of revolution. . . . Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war? And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?
Spanning five years, from the budding revolution to the Reign of Terror, Madame Tussaud brings us into the world of an incredible heroine whose talent for wax modeling saved her life and preserved the faces of a vanished kingdom.
One the very best things about historical fiction is having the opportunity to learn something new about a historical event or figure. As someone who claims the love of history, I am quite embarrassed to admit that all I knew about the titular Madame Tussaud was that she had several high profile wax museums named after her. In fact, her involvement in the French Revolution was a complete and total surprise (the good kind, of course). Having read Moran’s Madame Tussaud, I can say that I have now become extremely fascinated by the life of a woman who managed to straddle the tenuous line between two factions in one of the world’s bloodiest revolutions. Since finishing the book, I have done my own personal research and discovered endless information about Marie and the French Revolution that had evaded me for so long but has now captured my attention so fervently. As any fan of historical fiction can tell you, that’s when you know the book has succeeded.
Madame Tussaud was my second Moran novel, having read Rebel Queen with my book club last year. Both, in my opinion, were major successes and have thus established Moran as a must-read author for me. She writes beautifully without having to resort overly-ornate language. Almost every word served a purpose and I never once felt like Moran tried too hard to capture her audience’s attention. The only reason I didn’t give this novel a full ten stars was because there were some parts that were a touch slow. It wasn’t even that they were poorly written or unimportant; there were just some scenes that ran a little overlong, but as my rating should show you, these were very few and far in between and hardly enough to discourage further reading. I can understand the want to include every conversation and piece of information in a story, so I am hard-pressed to judge beyond a single star, and even then I had to force myself to give that rating because as much as I love being fair I, too, love Madame Tussaud.
The best thing, in my opinion, about Madame Tussaud was Marie Grosholtz herself. Long before she opened her famous waxwork museum in London, Marie worked at another museum run by her family in a small district in Paris. Taught to artfully manipulate wax by the man who was her father in all but blood, Marie had a special talent at creating astonishing, true-to-life figures. More than that, though, Moran did a fantastic job bringing to life a smart and creative character. Marie was driven by business and logic but not afraid to embrace her compassionate, emotional side. It was refreshing to see someone from history so well-portrayed. It was particularly wonderful to see a historical woman portrayed with such wit, strength, and emotion without compromising on her humanizing flaws. As I mentioned before, Moran’s portrayal of Grosholtz was so enticing that I was drawn to learn more about the woman behind the wax.
The other characters provided a wonderful melange of personality, conflict, and dialogue. Some of my favorite characters to read were Henri Charles, Marie’s father-figure and mentor Curtius, celebrated haberdasher Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette, and Princesse Elisabeth. They and the numerous other figures painted such a well-rounded canvas of characters and gave extraordinary depth to an already explosive story.
In Madame Tussaud, Moran has a style of writing that is as beautiful as it is straightforward. She manages to triumph in the hard task of writing something beautifully without injecting unnecessary and overly-sumptuous words. For me, this is always an amazing feat because there is such a fine line between ornate and gaudy and Moran stayed on the right side of that line.
Moran had a lot of time to cover in her novel. While five years may not seem like a lot, Marie’s family is closely linked to the major power-players of the revolution that there are innumerable interactions and reactions to cover. I would not be surprised if Moran had to cut several things from the novel to keep it running smooth. She did a great job keeping plot lines and historical events intact and, as I said above, there were very few instances where I thought scenes may have dragged on a touch longer than they should.
Madame Tussaud was an exciting, beautiful, and insightful read. As a lover of history, it moved me to learn more about a period of history I knew little about. As a feminist, it inspired me to see such a strong female lead and historical figure. As a reader, I was swept away by the nuance and detail – there were times I forgot that I lived in modern-day America and not in Revolutionary France. Moran did an impeccable job.
You are now entering the spoiler zone.
Okay, so as I mentioned above, I loved having a strong female character. One of the decisions Marie makes in the book, to stay behind when her beloved Henri decides to escape to England amidst the Revolution, was not only true to her character but made me love her all the more. She stayed behind to watch over her family and friends and to continue her business, knowing that doing so almost certainly would endanger her life. I love her dedication to her values. That does not mean, however, that I’m not a little sad that she didn’t get to be with Henri. We never got to see the two reunite in the story proper and instead Marie met the man who would make her Madame Tussaud. I was thankful to read in the epilogue that, eventually, Marie and Henri did meet (granted you almost knew it was going to happen from the prologue) even if Marie had still more trouble to endure before the happy meeting.
Still, I think not showing their reunion in the story proper was a good stylistic decision. While romance was certainly a running theme of the novel, especially in the first half, it was not the point, or endgame, of the novel. I think having them reunite before the epilogue would have detracted from Moran’s intent.
Another thing that struck me about the novel was just the scale of the Reign of Terror. While I did know that it was a bloody turning point in French history, I never realized the scale of destruction, death, and fear. It was eye-opening to see so many people, particularly characters like Camille, Marat, and others that had helped to initiate the Revolution, die as at the hands of the powers that be once the Revolutionaries took control.
You are leaving the spoiler zone.
If you are fan of historical fiction, I would definitely read this book.
Hope you enjoyed my review! Let me know in the comments if you liked this review or if you have read the book yourself.